According to most scholars, the behaviour of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, would culturally speaking be deemed to have been completely inappropriate for a man who sought to honour his own dignity in his family and in his community.
Firstly, there is the inappropriate request from the son. Give me my portion of the inheritance now. This would have been an unthinkable request at the time of Jesus. Many would consider it an inappropriate request even today. In Jesus day, it would have been an insult for a son to make such a request. It would have been tantamount to saying: “I really wish you were dead so that I can get on with my life and enjoy my inheritance!”
Secondly, not only is the question from the son inappropriate, but the fact that the father would even consider and give in to the request would have been seen as inappropriate to Jesus listeners. Within the wider Jewish scriptures, in a book called Sirach, it explicitly states that it is inappropriate for a father, a man of means and a man of dignity, to give his property or wealth to a son except as an inheritance when he died.
Thirdly, when the son comes home after having wasted his inheritance, it would have been considered completely inappropriate for the father to act as he did. Inappropriate to go running out to meet the son. This was below the dignity of a father. Inappropriate to be so ready to forgive. Inappropriate to welcome the son back to his former status. Inappropriate to lavish him with gifts. Inappropriate to throw a party to celebrate his return.
According to the cultural, patriarchal norms of the day, this would have been considered beneath the dignity of any man who would have wished to be respected in his community. In ancient Jewish culture, the father would have been viewed as severe, stern and authoritarian; and the mother as viewed as loving and compassionate. Children were meant to respect and fear the father. It was the mother who sons would love affectionately even after they are married. But such an understanding of the stern authoritarian father is completely absent in this parable of Jesus, instead he embraces his son and kisses him as a mother would have done.
For Jesus listeners, this would have been a shocking story. A shockingly undignified response from a father towards his wayward son. In fact not so long ago in upper class society here in the UK, such a son would have been completely ostracized.
Interestingly, Tim Bulkeley writes the following:
“If the story had been told substituting ‘mother’ for ‘father’ the tale would be unremarkable in both ancient and modern cultures, we expect mothers to be thus forgiving and welcoming of their wayward children. The parable is powerful, and has captured the imaginations of generations of Gospel readers, precisely because here the father acts as we expect stereotypical mothers to do!”
For most of the Old Testament, God was portrayed in the language and imagery that mirrored that of a powerful and strong male patriarchal figure: stern, severe, authoritarian, someone to be feared rather than loved. Strong, unpredictable, fierce, sometimes a ruthless disciplinarian. In some Old Testament stories, people found themselves punished far beyond the crime or disobedience they had committed. But here in Luke 15, Jesus invites us to encounter a much softer, even motherly image of God.
We see this too as Jesus speaks of God, in the rest of the Gospels, Jesus speaks of God clothing and feeding his children (Matt 6:26-32; Luke 11:1-2, 13; 12:30; John 6:32). He describes God giving gifts to both good and bad children alike (Matt 5:45); God is forgiving rather than punishing (Luke 6:36); God has special concern with ‘infants’ and ‘little ones’ (Matt 11:25; 18:14; Luke 10:21).
Bulkleley writes that one phrase that appears in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘your father who is in secret’, is particularly interesting. He says, Secret seems a strange word to describe a father’s place or role in the ancient world, for one major difference between fathers’ and mothers’ was precisely that, while a mother had influence in the private world of the home, the father represented that home in public.
Even though Jesus used the word Abba to describe God, the God he portrays is much more like that of a mother.
This image of God as mother is wonderfully captured in a hymn that we sang last week:
Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation... in a verse that has been left out of both our Mission Praise and Hymns and Psalms, the hymn writer captures beautifully a sense of God’s motherly qualities...
Praise to the Lord, who doth nourish thy life and restore thee,
fitting thee well for the tasks that are ever before thee.
Then to thy need
He like a mother doth speed,
spreading the wings of grace o'er thee.
And so on this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the love and the gift of our mothers, we give thanks also for the gift of God’s motherly love. Where else does the love of our mothers come from if not from God’s own motherly heart of love.
In closing, a verse from Isaiah 49:15
"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”